Long have we suspected something amiss with creative people. Think Mozart, van Gogh or Edgar Allen Poe (pictured above). Think bloggers tapping away in the wilting hour with candle wax all dripped on the table and tongues lolling about their heads.


Indeed writers and poets are so evidently crazy that the psychologist James C. Kaufman even invented the term ‘Sylvia Plath Effect‘ to distinguish the superiority of craziness displayed by poets as compared to writers. Implicit in this coinage is that writers and poets are both on that same spectrum of mental illness that might lead them to stick their head in an oven just as Sylvia Plath tragically did following her successful publication of The Bell Jar.

As an interesting aside … James C. Kaufman posted a link to this article on his Twitter feed. This is what he had to say … you can click on the jpg below to link to his twitter account if you want to follow him too.

I’m sure he doesn’t suck. In fact he seems very creative.

Anyway, my self aggrandisement complete … what is this elusive depressive characteristic that only some of us claim to possess? What is creativity? And does it really correlate with mental illness, or is it just that non creative people believe creative people to be insane?

Certainly there is an entire history of circumstantial evidence and also a reasonable body of peer reviewed scientific literature on the subject. But research published this week in the Journal of Psychiatric Research claims to have definitively linked creativity with mental illness and suicide, and it has done so on a grand scale.

The Swedish researchers from the Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm conducted a 40 year prospective study on more than a million Swedish citizens. A prospective study is one that requires subject monitoring over time as opposed to simple analysis of data retrospectively. If the time scale alone is not grand enough for you then consider that the study was also a ‘total population’ study, which is exactly as it sounds, hence the million plus unwitting statistics of the study.

The researchers, led by Dr. Simon Kyaga, have previously published that people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, as well as their direct relatives, are over-represented in ‘creative’ occupations. Their latest offering extends upon that information not only by using a far larger data set but also by including other definitions of what we politically incorrectly refer to as ‘crazy’. This list of creative illnesses included schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, autism, ADHD, anorexia nervosa, and completed suicide. Apparently failed suicide was not disorderly enough to make the cut.

The researchers were also intent on proving that authors, of all the creative professionals, are indeed the most mentally disturbed. Strangely, their definition of ‘creative professions’ included both scientific and artistic occupations. I can’t help but wonder where that leaves the classification of the science blogger … hmm. For a moment consider this diagram I constructed from my imagination. Now I’m no population creativity psychology researcher person, but I think I may have found a flaw in Dr. Kyaga’s data. Observe.

As you can see I believe that Scientists and Artists are at opposite ends of the creativity spectrum. I have absolutely no statistical data to support this, but I am a scientist and I work with, and have worked with hundreds of scientists over the past decade. I know a few artists too, but we are not debating the obvious creative merits of artists here, only scientists. In my experience most scientists are decidedly un-creative. The very training for science researchers is designed to extract any possible element of creativity within us. We are trained to conduct strict protocols and not to deviate from said protocols. And these protocols are really just like following a recipe. Chefs are often creative, but that does not mean that downloading the latest recipe to include liquid nitrogen will make you an oxymoronic creative cook.

You will also note that I include a section in the curve for mental illness as a correlate of absent creativity. We scientists are well known to display our own spectrum of mental condition. Think science geek, science nerd with no personal skills. Think autism or Aspergers. These spectral ideas are nothing new of course, after all, I am a scientist.

Overall the Swedish study found that ‘creative’ professionals were not more likely to suffer any of the identified mental illnesses with the exception of bipolar disorder. Perhaps this is not surprising as the scientists might well have cancelled out the artists! Have you ever had a dinner party at which your two guests of honour were a scientist and an artist? Of course you have, and so you know what occurs. A vacuum. A vaccuum inside a Bell jar, right in the middle of the curve.

However, when analysed from the alternate perspective the researchers did discover positive data that authors in particular were far more likely to suffer schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, unipolar depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicide, all of which happen to be correlates of each other by the way…

Of course correlation based studies are always susceptible to the chicken and egg argument. In this case it is unclear if people who suffer these mental illnesses are more inclined to pick up a pen, or if people who attempt to make a career out of writing are driven to depression, drug use or suicide. The research team would argue that because they saw these correlations extend to relatives of creative people there is no chicken and egg. But I would retort that perhaps the depressive nature of being an author extends all the way to one’s relatives. Remember the researchers did not specify that the authors be successful. There are sure to be differences between people in creative professions, and people who are actually creative. I cannot imagine that all these Swedish authors and their families are in receipt of Harry Potter-esque royalty payments. Granted Sweden has a very healthy crime fiction industry, but not that healthy. The point is, maybe a failed author is not really all that creative. Does lack of creativity lead to failure? And is it creativity or failure that leads to suicide?

Circumlocutiously we return to the original conundrum. What is creativity anyway? There are of course multiple dictionary and Wikipedia definitions of creativity, but such throw away lines do no justice to the concept. Central to all of them is that creativity implies originality ie, creation. Duh! The plus side to such rudimentary definition is that creationists would have to consider the possibility that God must be the very essence of mental disturbance. After all, He created everything didn’t he? Those who insist that God is dead might even find joy in this possibility as one must assume that with such vast creative powers He too succumbed to the Sylvia Plath Effect. But where in the universe does one find an oven of such immense proportion? If I were a creative person I might suggest the Sun. Hmmm … did the Egyptians worship the correct deity after all? See Akhenaten and his worship of the sun.

So if being on the very cusp of the creativity bell curve, so much so that one finds oneself all the way under the Bell Jar itself, is a hallmark of mental illness, then perhaps creative and crazy are just synonyms for extreme. Whatever the case may be, it is clear, even without the need for 40 year prospective total population studies, that a little bit of crazy is a good thing.

For more Science Satire click this LINK or comment below


9 thoughts on “OPINION – Mental illness and creativity linked

  1. Nice piece on science/arts v mental health. As your aim is to create discussion I have a few comments:
    1. I challenge your belief that scientists are not creative. As you touched on briefly, it depends on what your definition of creativity is. Without creativity I strongly doubt that scientists could have unlocked the human genome, put man (and monkey) in space or produced a blue rose etc etc.
    2. You pose the question whether for artists it is failure which would lead to mental health issues. It would be interesting to explore that further. What would failure look like to a true artist? Ironically enough, history has shown that a number of ‘successful’ artists struggle with main stream popularity. Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger to name 2 examples (if I knew anything of art or poetry I’m sure I could add to the list)
    3. God’s suicide oven, The sun? If ‘God’ created the universe, why would he choose ‘our sun’ to end his life?
    Anyway, thoroughly enjoying your blog. Keep it up.

    • Thanks for your generous criticism Karl. Great points.

      Let me attempt to answer your tripartite bullets in the vein of Maverick from Top Gun – that is, inverted in a 4G dive whilst giving your the bird.

      3. You are probably correct. If God were so inclined to end his existence following a bout of hysterical creativity, I would imagine that our Sun would not be his furnace. Our Sun is relatively unremarkable in the vastness of the universe. I believe He would head to the nearest O-class star sometimes called a blue star. These are the hottest stars. Our Sun is a lazy G2V yellow dwarf, not the crematorium of choice for deities. Having said this, Sylvia Plath did not burn in an oven like Gretel’s witch, rather she gassed herself … so perhaps a Gas Giant would be a more appropriate place to begin the search for a creator.

      2. This is indeed an interesting question. As I mentioned, we are really getting into chicken and egg territory here though and well beyond the capabilities of the Science Devil. Perhaps there are others who might give their own opinions on this matter

      1. You make a very good point that there are numerous examples throughout history of scientists who have made significant creative contributions to our culture and development. The examples you give are excellent ones. Add to the list individuals such as Leonardo da Vinci, who was both an artist and a scientist.

      However the problem with the study I reported on is that they lumped people in ‘scientific professions’ along with artists as a group of ‘creative’ people. Especially today with the streamlining of science doctoral studies at least 99.9% of ‘scientists’ are not unlocking genomes or creating blue roses. Far from it. Rather they are doing what their supervisor told them to do, or they are copying each other, or they are regurgitating ideas from conferences, or they are wasting their talents on science satire. I believe that there is more creative energy in the bodily excretions of your average artist than you can currently find in 100 lab coats.

      Thanks again for your comments. I would be very keen to know what others think of these points.

  2. Science Devil,

    I liked this article a lot but think you need to expand on your meditations to include cohort effects or affect in relation to ‘strange attractors’.

    Consider poor Plath, whose husband goes off and marries another woman, albeit a lesser poet. And Plath had read her manuals well, being such an all round good student and swept the floor and tidied the kitchen and knew enough to thoroughly block every aperture of the door to the children’s room so they at least survived. Whereas, the second wife who was no poet at all really had a quite terrific sense of an ending, and killed their child as well. Popular history has tended to erase her from the equation and Plath’s madness is thereby correlated a bit too simply with her tendency to poetry rather than with any complicating focus on assortative mating, or something in a marriage or university culture of the time. Ted was a poet but pretty good at engineering, I suspect, as well as animal husbandry and. Read that amazing poem on a dead born calf, and really, isn’t it all a matter of articulation?

    He survived both mad wives and wrote many more good poems but who can tell if he would have, without the wives. He might have stayed that ‘rough boy’ who could barely comb his hair or clean his teeth and was living in someone’s chook shed. Probably, like Einstein, hardly changed his socks but still, he survived. Also survived the brief squall of feminist hate during the 70s and took his rightful place in the Tower of Poetry which is like babel, supposedly, in relation to philosophy which is also a bit of a fortress (where they hardly let a woman in let alone kill you), and so it goes on, the history, of old men coughing and young men singing, and women caring for both and trying to do both.


  3. There are very few people as “up” on creativity as Dr. James Kaufman. It’s his deal and he is indeed an expert who travels all over the world lecturing on the subject. I have to say, I’ve met or worked with many many famous creative artists. Some are emotionally stable, some are not. Some are happy-go-lucky and do what they do naturally and without thinking. Some have had to work hard for years to acquire their skill or perspective. Many feel cocky in their own area of creativity, yet are terrified in another. There is a question in my mind as to whether psychological disorders cause one to be more creative, or whether particular types of creative endeavors are simply more attractive to people with psychological disorders. It’s certainly understandable why we might think mental disorders are associated with creativity. In my experience, creative thought comes from places other than the mundane. You can think of a creative artist as one who goes into an unknown world and brings back artifacts from that world. The more intriguing world, the more popular the work. Can someone without a disorder go to these worlds? Absolutely, and Lewin created a model for this with his topological view of psychology. Those who can find their way back to reality are considered stable and those who have a hard time, unstable. Actors make it their job to commute from reality to irreality and back again on a regular basis. They don’t suffer for it at all. On the contrary, the deeper they go into irreality, the more intriguing their acting is considered to be. The scientists I’ve known, particularly in physics, may not go into irreality. I think they may instead dwell in streams of focused thought so narrow that the broader river of life surrounding them is just overwhelming and unappealing. Most importantly, creative artists I’ve known that were truly legends, are free from worrying about what others might think about their work, at least during the creative stages. Those with psychological disorders (other than paranoid schizophrenics) may not be as aware of social criticism. After all, creativity has identity dripping all over it. Criticism about one’s creative work is a personality criticism. Those who don’t have an awareness of it would naturally have things a lot easier.

  4. Gordon Goodman’s comments are very worthwhile, it seems to me. This level of subtlety is necessary given all of the reductionist psychopathology in populist publishing. Good site you’ve got going here. I admire the level of informed detail, with the irony.

  5. Kay Redfield Jamieson’s work is worth referencing here – for she’s a Harvard academic in neurology (I think) who writes from the trenches, as it were, being a manic depressive, herself. (She prefers that term, for she argues that bipolar tends to schematically divide what is often a state of agitated depression in which the dysphoric cannot be so easily disassociated (?) from the euphoric . She’s a highly conversant scientist with a research profile, a practicing psychiatrist and very well informed about the history of art and literature, and the relationship of biography to such production.

  6. Hi, it seems we have reached similar conclusions through slightly different pathways. I feel that the distinction between the scientist who are driven crazy are the ones who set out with the aim of finding certainty, only to find that ultimately the way our universe operates offers only uncertainty, which is where my problems with mental health began…… Steve

    • Hi Steve,
      thanks for your comment. I’m sorry you have experienced problems with mental health yourself. As a researcher myself I also understand where you are coming from. It certainly does seem like we get into this business to find answers and solve problems. And more often than not we hit walls with our heads.

      But I do believe that the universe offers certainty. After all mathematics and physics are a lot more certain than biology. Implicit in this is that the universe is actually more understandable than we are. In a way we are the least comprehensible component of the universe. It is made all the more complicated by the fact that it is impossible to objectively understand ourselves. I think it is the inherent variability of us that is the real reason we cannot understand the universe.

      Maybe in order to prevent mental illness we need to first understand ourselves before we get too excited and grand in our aspirations to understand everything else. Having said that, aren’t psychiatrists more likely to suicide than most?

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